The smart CEO knows to make good use of every resource at their disposal, and it doesn’t end with finding free tools and becoming a master of networking. Have you given any thought to ancient philosophers recently? Perhaps not — but maybe you should have. They may date back many hundreds of years, but the great thinkers of yesteryear had no shortage of insight — and it may be that business, like human nature, hasn’t fundamentally changed.
So if you’re in the startup trenches, battling to gain ground in a heated war against your competitors and a challenging business landscape, consider turning your thoughts to the following 10 ruminations on life from some of history’s top minds. While other companies have their eyes locked on the future, steal a march on them by learning from the past:
“To see things in the seed, that is genius” – Lao Tzu.
The typical startup isn’t a fully-formed company, ready to pitch for top projects, rent giant offices in the city, or even have a compelling mission statement. It’s a nascent entity, still learning to function independently and chart a course to maturity. It’s a seed that, if watered properly, may one day grow into a mighty oak.
What you make of this truth will depend entirely on your attitude. You can obsess over what you can (and can’t) do now, eager to skip all the hardship and, to borrow a phrase from the wider employment world, “fake it until you make it” — or you can fix your focus on the full potential of the seed you’ve planted, giving yourself the confidence to be patient and grow steadily, knowing that the eventual payoff will be worth the investment.
“Haste in every business brings failures” – Herodotus.
Want to know what happens when you’re unwilling to wait for the seed to grow? You push too hard, soar eagerly towards the sun, and watch in dismay as your waxy wings melt and you plummet back to the earth. When you move too quickly, you overlook important details. You make mistakes. You discount viable tactics.
There are successful entrepreneurs who fail numerous times before succeeding, and small business owners who scrape by for years before suddenly achieving widespread recognition and seeing their profits soar. You never know when your hard work will pay off, but it likely will.
“You will never do anything in this world without courage” – Aristotle.
Starting a business is hard. Marketing a business is hard. Hiring the right people is hard. There aren’t that many significant elements of growing a startup that aren’t hard. If there were, it wouldn’t be such a feat to accomplish. And what will ultimately set you apart from all those who have tried and failed is courage: not being unafraid of failure, but being absolutely terrified and going for it anyway.
You can succeed without skill, picking it up as you go. You can succeed without money, working for nothing until you catch a break. You can even succeed with no coherent plan, because there’s time to work things out. But you can’t succeed if you’re too scared to try.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” – Socrates.
You’ve just landed your first big client, and you’re feeling pretty damn good about yourself. You’re now confirmed as a trusted expert, and with your sea legs fully under you, you can start navigating the choppy waters of the business ocean. But don’t get ahead of yourself, because that success doesn’t mean you’ve got it all figured out.
Given that even a world-class CEO can still completely botch a company launch, what reason do you have to be so assured that you’ll continue to thrive? No matter what you’ve accomplished, there’s always more to learn, and those who stop learning will inevitably be overtaken by their hungrier rivals.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca.
Isn’t business unfair sometimes? Your product is so much better than anything your competitors can offer, yet they keep getting new contracts and clients. It must be down to luck that they keep getting results while you’re left to struggle. Well… there might be fortune involved, sure, but it’s not a good idea to start thinking too much about luck as some capricious blessing.
Instead, fall back on the adage that you make your own luck. Prepare as best you can to ensure that your company comes across as well as it possibly can, factoring in what your target customers are looking for — and do your best to jump on any and all opportunities that come your way. For instance, do you promote your business on all relevant social media channels? If you don’t, you’re likely missing out on a lot of chances to build valuable connections.
“Know how to listen and you will profit even from those who talk badly” – Plutarch.
When you run a startup, it’s easy to start talking and never stop. After all, you’re the go-to person, both for your employees and for your current or prospective clients. You’re the hub of the wheel — everything revolves around you — so your input matters the most… right? Well, perhaps, but it’s just as important that you know how (and when) to listen.
Think about how easily your employees will agree with you if you apply some pressure. They want to keep their jobs, so if you clearly want them to go along with whatever you say, they’ll do it. That approach is very unhealthy, because your ideas will rapidly get stale, and you might end up damaging the company because you assume you always have the best case. Listen to anyone and everyone, even if you don’t think they have anything worthwhile to say, because it will at the very least help you strengthen your own thoughts.
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” – Sun Tzu.
Industry-wide disruption has become a common occurrence in the age of digital technology. There’s a certain way of doing things, a method that everyone follows, but one day a new system arrives that can get it done in half the time. All of a sudden, everything’s up in the air, and no one’s quite certain how to proceed.
This type of situation is scary because it fundamentally threatens all the plans you’ve made — but it’s also a great opportunity because it isn’t what you know that helps you get ahead when that happens: it’s how flexible you are. If you stay on your toes, ready to change with the times, then you’ll be able to ride chaos like a wave.
“Necessity is the mother of invention” – Plato.
There are two useful ways to think about this particular pearl of wisdom: firstly, you can be reassured that your creativity will rise with demand, granting you the determination to attempt things that seem intimidating. You might not think you can do it, but the more pressure you’re under, the more you’ll rise to the occasion.
Secondly, you can consider the importance of needs when determining the course of your startup. What do your prospective customers need? What does your company need? Run external surveys whenever you can. If you maintain absolute focus on what’s necessary, not just desired, then the fruits of your labor will be much more valuable.
“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps” – Confucius.
There’s no set way of doing things in business. You can get inspired by courses others have charted, but you’re not restricted by them. This is important to remember when you’re facing a particularly daunting step in your growth and you don’t see how you can possibly manage it — you might just need to take a different path to reach your destination.
Let’s say that you’re looking to network with others in your industry by attending relevant events, but you can’t find the time, resources, or invitations to reach them. Do you give up on the idea of networking? Or do you think about hosting your own event and sending out invitations? Or perhaps you’re stuck trying to build your website, lacking any technical skills. You could concede, or you could buy one that someone already made. We live in a time of technological wonders — that means there’s always a viable alternative plan.
“Make the best use of what’s in your power and take the rest as it happens” – Epictetus.
Finally, it’s always valuable to remember that you can’t control everything. In fact, there are plenty of things you’ll never be able to control in business, from how you’re perceived to how your industry shifts around you. You can influence things to varying extents, sure, but sometimes you can do everything in your power and still get nowhere.
And since there’s no use dwelling on things you can’t change, you need to stick to the things you can control. Make improvements wherever you can, plan carefully, add to your skills, and seek expert advice whenever possible. For everything else, just sit back and try to enjoy the ride, ready to take on the roadblocks that come barreling over the horizon.